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At least for a year, school districts can breathe big sigh of relief

Class sizes may not go up as much as they might have in some area school districts, and some laid-off teachers might be back this fall, at least for this year.

Kids who need it may get more help in math or reading.

All those things could be possible because of a one-time infusion of federal money to save education jobs.

The Minnesota Department of Education applied this week for $167 million in funding from the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund approved by Congress in early August.

The fund, called Ed Jobs, is intended to save the jobs of teachers and other school staff who work with early childhood, elementary and secondary students. It will be distributed based on state education formulas.

The state provides funding based on the number of pupils in a district, as well as the proportion of students with special needs and other factors, so the per-pupil amount will vary among districts.

Most area districts will receive between $200 and $300 per pupil.

Area superintendents said Wednesday that they are pleased with the new funding, even though it will be available only for one year.

As with many federal programs, Ed Jobs funding comes with a number of requirements. It must be used to pay for teachers and related staff, and the spending decisions must have been made after the law was signed on Aug. 10.

Districts will receive 90 percent of the funding this year, and 10 percent in the following year. The money will not come in a lump sum but will be sent as a reimbursement for actual expenditures.

The state just released preliminary information about the funding a few days ago, so many districts are still looking at their options. Some already have plans in place.

Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller said the district will be careful to use its $325,536 in ways that will not create future obligations.

"For us, we cut almost three-quarters of a million dollars (last spring), so there are a lot of things we could look at," Heller said. "We'll try to find a way to get the most benefit."

Willmar's schools, with an estimated payment of $921,596, will be able to use the money for two second-grade teachers, a fifth-grade teacher and a kindergarten teacher, said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. Positions at the Middle School and Senior High School are under consideration, too.

Kjergaard estimated that the district could add 15 to 20 people to its workforce this year with the money.

"It's not the usual problem," he said. Willmar has cut about $4 million from its budgets in the past two years.

"It would be nice to update our technology," said New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson, but the money can't be used for supplies or equipment.

NLS recently added a section of kindergarten and will be able to use its $264,109 in Ed Jobs money for that. Carlson said the district is considering using some of the money to develop an intensive summer enrichment program.

"Even though it's only one-time money, it's greatly appreciated," Carlson said.

Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City has added a kindergarten teacher to keep class sizes down. Superintendent Sherri Broderius said she is meeting with her staff to look at other needs. She said she may set some aside to use throughout the year for emergency staffing needs.

"We will be using some of the money to pay for additional teaching assistants that we have hired to support our elementary teachers during reading and math instruction," Benson Superintendent Lee Westrum said in an e-mail.

Since the district's budget this year has a deficit, the district will be cautious with the rest of its $134,000, he added. Ed Jobs funding may be used to cover deficit spending in some cases related to maintaining class sizes.

Minnewaska Area has restored a sixth-grade teaching position that had been cut in May and is still discussing how to use the rest of its $245,802, said Superintendent Gregory Ohl in an e-mail.

Yellow Medicine East Superintendent Al Stoeckman said he hopes to find a way to use some of the funding into the 2011-12 school year, too. Administrators will be meeting next week to look at their options, he said.

Renville County West will wait to decide how to use the money. Superintendent Lance Bagstad said, "We are going to see what develops ... when the staff and students return, and make adjustments from there."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340